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So yesterday, after assuming I'd finished my roll, which I'd been shooting over a few months because I don't shoot film that often, I went to wind my film back into the canister. I did everything right, but noticed that there was a lack of tension and thought it was odd that the frame counter on my Canon AE-1 wasn't automatically winding back to S. This makes me think I'd stupidly not loaded the film properly in the first place and that despite shooting over the past few months, I've not actually gotten any of the shots.

I'm curious to know if there is a way to test without having to develop the film.

I was thinking if I retracted the leader out of the canister and pulled out the first frame, would I be able to tell if it had been exposed or not and therefore make an assumption as to whether the other had as well?

Thanks in advance for any help!

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There is no way to visually inspect undeveloped film to see if it has been exposed. The images on undeveloped film are called 'latent images' because the chemical changes made to the light sensitive molecules in the film's emulsion are not visible until those molecules have reacted with the chemicals in developer.

Even if the changes were visible, there would be no way to observe the film with your eyes without exposing it to more light, which would cause further chemical reactions in the emulsion and fog the film.

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Two options really:

1.) Sacrifice the roll and develop it normally. If the images are important, the cost of a roll of film is negligible. Or...

2.) Sacrifice the first frame. Extract film from the cassette (in the dark!) to the extent where you think the first frame is, clip it, and develop it normally. You can just tray develop the clip in your developer for a few minutes then drop it in fixer for a minute if all you're looking for is the existence of an image. Of course this just tells you if the first frame was exposed. There could be images further into the roll, especially if you suspect a problem with the camera.

Film is cheap. I would go with option 1 if the images are at all meaningful.

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    Option 2 won't work if the camera exposes film from the other end. – Erbureth says Reinstate Monica May 21 '18 at 14:42
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    @Erbureth in that case it wouldn't make much sense to wind back the film or that the counter normally goes back during rewinding. – Gerhardh May 21 '18 at 15:52

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